On my second day in Cambodia, I found myself on the back of a motorbike weaving through the flow of traffic. Lanes and lines disappear in a shifting sea across the streets of Phnom Penh. It’s a tight fit. But there’s always room to squeeze one more motorbike onto the road. People seemingly tap into a collective consciousness and traffic becomes one living organism. Most Cambodian motorcyclists are fairly streamlined to their bikes and can slip and slide into tight spaces between vehicles. However, being 6’4″ and tucked up against a stranger’s back, there is simply nowhere for my knees to go except out. Several times my legs were bowing out, causing drag and splitting inches past rushing traffic in both directions. It’s the type of situation where fear and apprehension are jumping up and down like rambunctious children trying to tear down any sense of calm composure in my mind. But it’s a good time to relearn how to pray.
It was nighttime in Phnom Penh and I was finishing up some work with InnerChange (see photos below). I had been in the city long enough now to make my way across it. I wore my rite of passage proudly (a muffler-burn/scar on my inner calf) and was getting used to contorting my body in order to secure my extremities on a couple rickety bars and pegs. The swelling stream of moving metal, rubber and fumes across the concrete was becoming an ordinary yet uncomfortable daily experience.
Besides my backpack and a motorcycle helmet, I had a plastic bag of clean laundry with me that night in Phnom Penh. I walked down a dimly lit residential road and as I came to the intersection I was greeted by several drivers, one of which who was forcefully enthusiastic and insisted that he drive me. I annunciated the local landmark near where I was staying and we negotiated a fair price. Previous times motorcycle drivers were so excited to drive me across town that they would insist they knew where I wanted to go even if they didn’t actually know… and we would arrive in some place I had never seen before. I would then start pointing brazenly in directions that might as well have been completely random hoping to spy someplace familiar. I assumed the driver this specific night was blinded by his enthusiasm and didn’t actually know where I wanted to go… but he would try and we would eventually make it. So I agreed, saddled up on the back of his bike and held my laundry on my lap.
His bike was particularly small and he accelerated rapidly. But, without momentum on our side, the bike immediately began to swivel. “Ok, he’ll get control in a sec.” After accelerating a few meters down the gravel road we were swerving uncontrollably. The bike leaned to tip over to the left so the driver swung his body to the right and leaned, steering and tipping the bike to the right. A second later the process was repeated. Again and again; each reactionary swerve growing closer to that fatal tipping point as we accelerated. Then, in a moment, my senses came into clarity. It was inevitable now; a matter of time: milliseconds. Waiting. Still swerving. I loosened my grip and relaxed my muscles as we were going down.
I sat up as it was happening and hovered my feet above the moving ground, leaning back, ready to jump ship at the perfect moment. The front wheel caught, twisted underneath itself, and pointed 90 degrees right, causing a skidded stop that thrust us forward and slammed the bike into the ground. I managed to stay upright enough, holding a position of genuflection- as if bending one knee to the ground for prayer- behind the crashed bike. The driver was, somehow, still on the bike, tipped over on its side. My bag of clean laundry lay on the road, intact. The driver’s acquaintances were running down the street towards us. I assessed my health- finding nothing but a few scratches- and walked up to lift the bike and driver up off the ground. I grabbed the tail end and his friends lifted the front. It suddenly made sense when I saw him dazed and lethargic as he attempted getting off the bike. He was shaken up, yes, but his prior belligerent enthusiasm and inability to gain control of the bike… The pungent smell of dripping oil was like milk compared to the acrid stench of alcohol that cut through the air and into my nose. How had I not noticed it before?
The driver appeared to be mostly fine but, soon, panicked chattering arose and the driver started yelling. Considering the volatility of the situation and not knowing what the driver was yelling about I wanted to distance myself immediately. I gathered my things as I was not feeling responsible in any way for what just happened. An English speaking man motioned me over to the next road and flagged down an oncoming motorcycle driver. I slipped out of the streetlight. The new driver stopped. He and the English speaking man exchanged a few words in Khmer and then motioned me aboard. I did not hesitate. I did not look back at the scene of the crash but imagined a swirl of cacophony and chaos still raged. A moment later I was gone, turning back to yell thanks to the English speaking man.
The night air slipped into my helmet as I flipped the face shield to the sky. I stared up at the endless urban buildings and flashing neon lights as they went by. We rode on; my hands slightly shaking as I prayed. – I’m not happy how things went down. But sometimes that is just how life goes. You make decisions in pivotal moments and you have to spend the rest of your life living with how they play out.
Prior to that (and especially afterwards) whosever bike I sat upon I always muttered prayers from the back of the bike; I took to referring to them as Cambodian Motorcycle Prayers. Some drivers rode like the devil and my prayers were more fervent than ever. Others possessed slow, garbled pieces of machinery that only allowed us to ride like snails.
A few weeks after the crash my friend Jody and I found ourselves half-stranded at Angkor Wat on Khmer New Years. The sun was baking the land into a cloud of clay dust. Our bodies turned to sweat. After asking around we came upon some reluctant motorcyclists who were willing to drive us back to town for a price. We took what we could get… And that didn’t include helmets. Instead we got two drivers that rode like demons on a flat open road with red dust billowing off the tires of vehicles whizzing by. I got reacquainted with fleeting pierces of fear. As the late sun began to sink into my eyes so did the salt, dust and sweat of an entire day’s worth of temple exploration. The motorcycles throttled into high gear and soon the sting of sweat and dust caused my eyes to seal shut. I fought it like someone fights the heavy lids of sleep. The speed at which we were driving caused bumps to launch one or both of my feet off the pegs and potentially onto the road which could flip me off balance and, consequently, off the bike. At speeds like this there would be no genuflection; only a freshly cracked skull and a torso of sizzling road rash.
So with tears streaming laterally across my cheeks and flapping off into the wind I pinched my eyes open to see bumps in the road. But the sting was too sharp. I had no choice but to smile and give way to the practice of Cambodian Motorcycle Prayers as I felt the road, unseen, strip itself of all fear.
Above: Photos from Mark and Susan Smith’s neighborhood.
Below: Meeting with Susan Smith, local restaurants and local food (bananas and lotus)
Below: Photos from Kampong Cham market and Sunrise Project
Below: Wat Nakor, Kampang Cham prison, fried tarantulas
Below: Daily life in Phnom Penh, families celebrating a wedding, children celebrating the New Year